Some Days Our Best Was None Too Good!

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FarSide Gallery – Gary Larson

This is the month of unusual responses. Earlier this month I had posted a piece, “Why Are We So Angry?”. It dealt with beliefs and when reposted by a follower, a commenter suggested that the writer (me) was a jerk. Apparently, the family member (extended) who shared that observation either failed to notice the source of the piece or had been harboring long-festering disenchantment with my arrival in the family.   The second unusual response came earlier today when I had posted a comment on our Modern Learners site about the current topic… grading.  No. Will Richardson didn’t comment on my level of “jerkiness.”  Rather, he became the first reader of my reflections to see them sufficiently valuable to suggest that I post the comment on my blog. (BTW, I just learned that, if you’re one row off when typing, “blog” can become “blob”).  So here goes…

Time for an adult beverage…  I want to add a point for consideration to our discussion of grading.  It’s an economic one.  One that reaches beyond the concerns raised about the high costs of the test and punish reform culture which so captured the hearts of the reformers. I’ll attempt this by sharing several anecdotes. While these may be unique to my experience, I am certain that each of us could recite variations.  I’ll save the punch line to the end.  Enjoy your beverage. Spoiler alert:  If the prospect of wading through the context to get to the end is as exciting as crawling hoe over glass, you can skip to the last sentence where I accuse us all of fiscal malpractice.

When I first began teaching it was in a private boys’ high school.  Fresh out of college with a degree that included nothing about teaching, what I “knew” about teaching I had learned by sitting at a desk in the same type of school where I was now seated on the other side of a larger desk.  I was given the texts I was to use (5 preps) and a green grade book.

Having no idea what to do with the little green book that had lots of little squares in it, I asked an” experienced” colleague (he had started teaching the year before) what I should do with this grading thing.  I asked this in what passed for a faculty room and one of the older, much wiser, teachers responded quickly.  “Fill it with numbers.. The more numbers you have the less likely it will be that a parent challenges your grades.”  This proved to be sage advice as a couple of months later at parent night, I watched a colleague be challenged by a parent who asked in a fairly hostile manner, “How come my kid got a ‘D’?  Brandishing his grade book, my colleague quickly responded, “Look here at his grades.  You can see he wasn’t quite bad enough to get an ‘F’.”

Some years later, working in a rural public high school (by this time I had been to grad school and “learned about teaching”.  Sadly, this experience could have easily taken place in the faculty room of my first school.  Being pretty comfortable with kids, I soon became a sounding board for their complaints about schooling as well as their assessments of their various teachers.  Not surprising to any of today, the majority of the kids were not fans of what they considered the arbitrariness of their grades. Doing a little investigative work, I discovered neither I nor most of my colleagues knew how grades were given in other classes…even those in rooms right next door.

Fast forward a lot of years and I’m now the “traveling s.o.b. with slides” helping schools and districts with their school improvement efforts (tempting to add quotes around ‘helping’ and ‘improvement’).  At a district in Nevada, while working with an assistant superintendent for instruction, I noted that he had multiple screens hooked up to his computer… screens filled with numbers and spreadsheets.  I asked him what he was working on.  He shared with me an “exploration” he was pursuing after having a dinner table chat with his son who was a senior, wondering why his son was so adamant about getting a specific teacher for senior English. 

Since the district had an in-house data system, he was able to look at the grading practices of the various teachers.  All teachers were required to use a point based system for grading.  The areas eligible for assessment were home work, class participation, projects, test grades. Nothing terribly unusual… until he looked at the point distribution in various classes… in this case the sections of the same class (English 4) taught by different teachers… Parallel sections, common outcomes, district syllabus.  Here’s a quick summary of his findings… teacher #1 had a total of 1800 possible points roughly evenly distributed among the 4 areas of evaluation.  Teacher #2, 1100 points for projects, no points for homework, 500 for participation, 200 for tests.  Teacher #3, 1200 points for test grades, 300 for homework, 300 for participation, nothing for projects.

Getting to the punch line. Assuming most of us have attended more than our share of graduation ceremonies, we’ve heard a number of dramatic readings of the accumulated scholarship money earned by the graduating seniors.  Unless she/he has done the unthinkable and bitten the hand that feeds them, the valedictorian is honored with the title, the opportunity to share a talk (usually pre-approved) and has enjoyed more scholarship money for having earned the distinction of having secured the top spot in the class.

So here it comes… What if none of the calculations used to determine class rank, scholarship eligibility, community awards, etc. even approach statistical validity or reliability?  What if the class rank depends more on the ability to game the system than on the learning demonstrated by those honored? What if annually we proudly announce the award of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars with the caveat that, in addition to being a sham, the system of grading is actually preventing learning.

We need to say loud and clear that the process of awarding/assigning grades is inequitable. It is not only keeping our kids from learning, it is also budgetary malpractice!

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